'Pride and Glory" is a New York City cop movie about police venality, but it also might become the first Iraq war-inspired feature to make a dent at the box office and win mainstream awards.
How does a story based in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood Washington Heights resonate with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? Credit the collaboration between a gutsy writer-director, Gavin O'Connor ("Tumbleweeds," "Miracle"), with family roots in the New York Police Department, and his audacious star, Edward Norton.
Over the phone from a getaway spot in Ontario, Norton recalled telling O'Connor, "I have to ask the question, what's going to make it worthwhile for me to make a very good example of another cop-corruption movie?"
Then the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.
"We started saying to each other that the institutional lying at the center of 'Pride and Glory' mirrored the crucible the country was going through. What's so fascinating to me about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or any flash point is that somewhere around it there is a person who surely has deep feelings of loyalty to his fellow soldiers, his unit, his army, his country.
"Yet he reaches a moment where he says, 'I'm going to distribute a disc with the pictures because they show a corruption of the things we're supposed to be standing for.' For an actor, that's an incredibly interesting tension."
The movie, which opens Friday, was personal for O'Connor, who called last month from Pittsburgh, where he's preparing his new picture ("Warriors," set in the world of mixed martial arts).
"My dad retired from the NYPD as a detective sergeant," he said. "My uncle was a cop; my mother's father was a cop. There are a lot of things we got right in the script, including having cops talk as cops talk.
"But when Edward got on board, he was great about challenging me, pushing me."
Norton walks into what he calls the "zone of truth" in the opening minutes of "Pride and Glory" and doesn't leave it for two hours. He plays Ray Tierney, an NYPD detective from a family of cops -- his influential old-school father (Jon Voight), his Washington Heights precinct-chief brother (Noah Emmerich) and his slippery brother-in-law (Colin Farrell), a cop in the same precinct.
When Ray's investigation of a horrific group murder leads him to believe that his brother-in-law might be operating a drug-dealing hit squad, he's caught in a waking nightmare.
O'Connor acknowledged Norton's reputation for upsetting certain directors (Tony Kaye in "American History X") and certain producers (Marvel Entertainment, "The Incredible Hulk") with the scope and intensity of his input.
But this director said, "Edward's very involved in a positive way. Most actors are just concerned with the role. He needs to know how his work fits into the piece as a whole. He needs to understand the whole puzzle and how his character tentacles out into the other pieces."
Norton's commitment extended to the film's release. He'll be promoting "Pride and Glory" avidly. (He didn't do that for "The Incredible Hulk" after reports of his and director Louis Leterrier's disagreements with Marvel in the editing room threatened to distract from the film.)
"Pride and Glory" boasts the zest and grit of New York police-corruption movies from the 1970s and beyond, and Norton can ring off a whole list of them. "Amazingly," Norton said with a laugh, "they're all by Sidney Lumet. For me, the Lumet movie that stands out from that bunch is 'Serpico,' because that was the police-corruption film for its generation. Frank Serpico was the hippie cop who spoke to the counterculture."
Norton saw "Pride and Glory" as a chance to explore "how words like pride and glory and patriotism are used to co-opt my generation into participating in things that it knows are not right. And when you frame something that way, to me it starts to rise above genre."